Foreign Affairs: Will NATO pacify the Middle East?

Abbas’s proposal that the American-led alliance safeguard Israeli-Palestinian peace might not suit its commanders, as they consider their journey over the past 25 years.

A FRENCH soldier of the NATO-led coalition patrols in the mountains of Wardak Province in Afghanistan in 2009. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A FRENCH soldier of the NATO-led coalition patrols in the mountains of Wardak Province in Afghanistan in 2009.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Three forgotten anniversaries are upon us.
Sixty-five years ago this month, the first Arab-Israeli agreement of any sort was signed; two months later, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established; and 20 years ago this month, it engaged in combat for the first time in its history.
When 10 European nations joined the US and Britain to create the military treaty that confronted the emerging Eastern Bloc, the last thing they could imagine was that it would someday be called to pacify the Middle East.
Not only was the Middle East well beyond the Atlantic rim that connected NATO’s founders, it seemed - as hard as it may be to believe today - on its way to peace; in February ’49 Israel and Egypt signed an armistice agreement, which by the time of NATO’s creation 10 weeks later had been followed by similar agreements with Lebanon and Jordan.
This week, however, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suggested NATO secure the prospective Palestinian state’s borders, the world’s mightiest military alliance became a knight on the Middle Eastern chessboard.
It is an idea that might later prove transformative, but before that will vex the Mideast conflict’s parties and also NATO itself – a perplexed giant which has come a long way since winter ’94, when its pilots shot down four Serbian jets above Bosnia in its first-ever skirmish.
A PALESTINIAN admission of NATO is the simplest of the three consents this idea would require.
True, Abbas’s statement is not known to have been preceded by much of a debate, let alone approval process, within the Palestinian leadership; it might yet encounter opposition to indefinite foreign presence on what Islamist radicals are likely to present as a defilement of Arab land. The jury is also out as to the sincerity of the proposal, which some believe is but a ploy to divert attention from Abbas’s refusal to recognize Israel as the Jewish state.
Then again, for the Palestinians, the NATO idea is a relatively low-stakes gamble. NATO’s deployment between Jericho and Nablus would fulfill the Palestinian strategic aim of extracting Israel from the West Bank, and would not involve much of a Palestinian concession, as in any case, negotiators take it as a given that the Palestinian state would be demilitarized.
For Israel, the idea is much more problematic.
The Jewish state already has extensive, and often troubled, experience with assorted peacekeeping forces. The most notorious memory is the UN Emergency Force that was planted between Israel and Egypt in the aftermath of the 1956 Sinai Campaign, only to flee the scene the moment Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser mobilized his army and announced his intention to wage war.
UNEF’s evaporation in ’67 upon receipt of its expulsion order was one of the Six Day War’s major triggers. It is also a formative trauma for Israel, which emerged from that experience doubting both the effect and will of peacekeeping forces.
Similarly ineffective has been the UN’s presence in Lebanon, following the UN Interim Force in Lebanon’s creation in the wake of the 1978 Litani Operation.
Had that force been effective, the Galilee would not have been bombarded by the routine Katyusha salvos that led to the First Lebanon War.
There were, however, better peacekeeping experiences.
In the Golan Heights, the UN Disengagement Observer Force has been buffering between the Israeli and Syrian armies for 40 surprisingly eventless years, notwithstanding the current civil war’s occasional incident, which is a different issue.
In Lebanon, UNIFIL is patrolling for the eighth year a tense but nonetheless quiet border.
And in the Sinai, the Multinational Force and Observers, which followed the signing of peace between Egypt and Israel, has been part of a successful 35-year-old demilitarization.
How, then, would NATO spice the alphabet soup of UNEF, UNDOF, UNIFIL, and MFO, that were preceded already in 1948 by UNTSO – the UN Treaty Truce Supervision Organization – which has been searching for Mideast peace since its arrival here in 1948? NATO ENTERED this century as history’s most successful military alliance. It defeated the mighty Warsaw Pact alliance so swiftly that the latter not only unraveled, but most of its members, including the one that gave it its name, defected.
Yet it is too early to judge whether NATO’s outliving of the Cold War that fathered it represented an elegant passage to the future, or an inelegant failure to part with the past. What is clear is that following the great victory it had won without firing one bullet, NATO gradually came to fire many, and the more it fought, the more it drifted away from its original purpose – and the less it became synonymous with success.
It did not take long for the rich, expanded and suddenly unrivaled alliance to arrive in the battlefield.
Fittingly, it happened in the former Yugoslavia, the European country that had made a career of positioning itself between the Warsaw Pact and NATO, joining neither and buying arms from both.
As that federation came unstuck, as if it had been glued by the rivalry it never joined, NATO was alarmed to see war descend on European cities for the first time since 1945. What began in 1992 with the enforcement of the UN-ordered no-fly zone above Bosnia, became in 1999 a massive aerial attack on Serbia in the wake of its war with Kosovo.
Eleven weeks of intensive bombardment brought to its knees what was still called at the time Yugoslavia. The Balkans’ subsequent stability is largely the result of that intervention, which seemed not only effective but also apt, because it was about Europe.
That geographic focus, however, lasted hardly two years, as what began in Europe proceeded to Asia, where America waged war following the September 11 attacks, dragging NATO with it, and a decade later NATO arrived in Africa, where its bombers rattled Libya to hasten Muammar Gaddafi’s departure.
Diplomatically, NATO ’s arrival in Afghanistan was justified in the sense that its members are committed to defend any member that comes under attack, as the US evidently did. Even so, the theater where NATO troops now found themselves fighting could hardly be more distant from the Atlantic that lynchpins their alliance and has also given it its name.
More importantly, success in Afghanistan has been less clear than what it was in Yugoslavia.
Afghanistan could not be subdued from the air, nor did its invaders manage to reinvent it from the ground. Afghanistan’s survival of NATO ’s arrival and NATO ’s loss of troops there, while by no means comparable to the Soviet debacle there, still bring to mind thoughts about imperial overextension, and the limits of power in general and NATO ’s in particular.
Meanwhile, the alliance that spent its formative years bracing for conventional and atomic wars, has found itself instead as an anti-terror warrior. That is what September 11 did to NATO , which ultimately found itself dispatching vessels to chase after pirates in the Gulf of Aden, while its troops faced Islamist suicide bombers in Afghanistan.
IT IS with this record of clout and doubt NATO would arrive in the Holy Land.
If it is indeed invited to reside between Israel and Palestine, NATO ’s dilemma will be decided by the definition of its task: Will it be up in the air and looking at mountain ranges, or down on the ground and looking into casbahs? If it is the latter, NATO might not want it.
The Israeli experience has been that peacekeeping works only when the parties don’t want to fight. Furthermore, NATO ’s experience has been that it can decide a war only when facing an industrialized country. That is why its action sufficed to reinvent Serbia, but not Libya or Afghanistan.
NATO will therefore ask the statesmen: Do you want a small and sparsely spread force within and atop the Jordan Valley searching for attacks that might emerge from between Tehran and Damascus, or do you want in addition to that a large force that will come between this conflict’s belligerents? The former assignment might suit, maybe even excite NATO . The latter task will be less appealing, as the alliance will have to consider the prospect of its troops again becoming targets for guerrillas.
Israel’s inclination will be the opposite of that.
Jerusalem’s traditional position, even before configuring its traumatic experience with peacekeepers, has been that it will not outsource its security. That is why it is hostile to the idea that NATO patrol the Jordan Valley and replace the IDF’s deterrence there from foreign invasion.
However, west of the Jordan Valley, Israel might find merit in NATO ’s presence. Israel has been quietly appreciative of the American involvement in building the Palestinian secret services that have helped reduce terror in recent years.
It is therefore likely that Jerusalem will welcome NATO ’s presence within the West Bank, once Israel leaves it.
NATO itself, alas, might tell the chess masters that the knight they are toying with will prefer to remain in its barracks.